Time to meet your daemon: your devil. Where do you find your devil? Why, in the details of course! And this makes a lovely segue to Yin Yoga where there are lots of devilish details that arise, creating thoughts of changing what we are doing, urges to come out of the pose early, running away, avoiding the discomfort and challenges in front of us. You want to stay, but you also want to leave: you are torn in two – and that other half, the one urging you to do what you didn’t originally want to do, is your daemon.
The one who blocks your path, according to the Greeks, is called Diablos. The adversary, to the Hebrews, is called Satan. These are names you have heard before; here is one you may not know: to the Buddhists the one who moves against the world is called Mara; he is also simply called the killer, and he comes in four unique flavors:
- There is the Mara of the body and heart: physical or emotion challenges that tempt us to move in unskillful directions;
- There is the Mara of the mind: concepts and thoughts which also do not serve us very well;
- There is the biggie – Mara as Death – the ultimate obstacle in life;
- And there is the personification of all of these and everything else that forces us to act in ways we’d rather not – the god Mara Deva.
What stops you? This is a valuable question at any time in life when things are not going the way you’d like or when you face a challenge, an obstacle. It is also an essential question to ask in our Yoga practice when we reach our edge: what is stopping me from going further? Knowing the answer can make all the difference between progress in practice or suffering a severe setback. When we look for the obstacle and find that it is inside of ourselves, we have discovered a daemon: that which holds me back is a part of me and if I wish to make progress I need to understand what this part intends.
The Buddha and Mara
The idea of Mara is unique in India to Buddhism. In Hinduism, as in Greek, Roman and Celtic mythologies, evil is found along with the good in each god or goddess: like us mortal creatures all the gods had their wrathful, lustful, negative aspects along with their loving, generous, positive aspects. In many Levantine stories (from Persia to Israel) and in Buddhist stories, however, evil gets consolidated onto one specific and special creature: the devil, or, in this case, Mara. Curiously it was on the night that the Buddha was to become enlightened that Mara first decided to assault the Buddha: this was just the beginning of many such episodes. This is curious because you might expect that once you have become an enlightened being the devil would leave you alone, as Satan did with Jesus after Jesus bested him in the desert. Not so – as long as life continues, obstacles will arise; Mara is always at hand and even enlightened masters must be constantly alert.
The Buddha sat beneath the tree of awakening and vowed to not move until he achieved his goal: nothing would deter him. But Mara had other ideas. Mara turned into Kama: the god of pleasure. Kama has three beautiful daughters named Lust, Fulfillment and Regret. He instructed his daughters to seduce the Buddha and they really did try. They turned on all their womanly wiles enticing the Buddha with great, sensual joy if he would but come with them. The Buddha remained fixed. Ashamed by their intentions, the daughters withdrew.
Desire is a daemon we all experience while in a Yin Yoga pose: we want to come out. Coming out will feel so nice. It is tempting to come out, but this daemon is powerless if you remember your intention. In Yin Yoga the first of the four Maras appears frequently: the body desires release. Notice: the Buddha did not kill Kama’s daughters: he did nothing to them and by simply letting them be, they went away of their own accord. This is a powerful first lesson.
Mara next became Yama, the god of death. Yama approached the Buddha with all his fearsome armies and demanded that the Buddha surrender his spot under the tree of awakening. The Buddha did not stir: Yama flew into a great rage and ordered his armies to attack! Arrows and knives, lances and swords all flew toward the silent sage but as these weapons came near they were transformed into flowers and lotus blossoms, snowing down harmlessly around the Buddha. Yama’s great elephant bowed down before the Buddha and then departed.
Fear is a great daemon which can also arise in a yoga practice: am I too deep? Will I hurt myself by continuing? Is this sensation good or bad? Maybe I should leave right now and save my body. Fear may surface even before you come to the class? Many beginners refuse to try Yin Yoga because they have heard how challenging it is and, misunderstanding the practice; they are afraid that they will be holding Warrior poses for five minutes. Fear prevents. This is the second lesson.
Finally, Mara donned the mask of Dharma: the great god of duty. He walked up to the Buddha and assailed him with words dripping with judgement and contempt: “What you are doing here, just sitting, wasting your life away? You are the son of a king! Your father is counting on you to help him rule the land. You have a wife and a baby; both cruelly abandoned. You care nothing for anybody? Get up and go home – fulfill your duty to your family and your country. You should be ashamed of yourself for your selfishness.” The Buddha remained silent; he simply reached down and touched the earth. In his defense the earth spoke, “Leave him alone! Through countless incarnations he has given of himself for the welfare of others and now the Buddha is about to awaken and save all sentient beings.” Dharma-Mara slunk away, leaving the Buddha all alone … for now.
Here is the greatest daemon of all – the call of duty. Whenever you hear the words “should” or “ought” you know Mara is close by. These words may be thrown at you by your parents, your friends, your teachers, your society, your church or, even more troublesome, by you yourself! I should go to yoga. I should stay in the pose longer. I ought to be kinder, more thoughtful, more present, more ___(fill in the blank)___. This is a manifestation of the second of the four Maras: the concept in your mind of duty and obligation.
The Daemon is Not Evil!
By now you may be wondering if there are times when you should listen to your daemon: isn’t fear of hurting myself by staying too long in a pose actually good for me? Isn’t listening to Dharma-Mara appropriate, sometimes? Carl Jung once noted that our daemons are neither good nor bad. Think of them as doors. A door can be either open or closed: when it is closed – the door is a daemon; when it is open – the door is a Buddha. But the door itself is not good or evil: it is just a door.
Joseph Campbell explains, “In the Greek, the demon is that unconscious impulse that is the dynamic of your life and which comes to you in vision and in dream, but in the Christian interpretation, it is a devil – all that a devil is is a repressed demon: one who has not been recognized, one that has not been given its dues, who has not been allowed to play into your life and so becomes a violent threat.”
Our practice is not to kill our daemons; we do not try to do away with them. Remember the Buddha does not attack his tormentors. He lets them do their thing and when they run out of steam, they go away on their own. And! They come back, again and again. The Buddha did something that we are not taught in the West: rather than trying to overcome the devil he came into a radically different accord with his daemon.
The aspects of Mara are psychologically aspects of the Buddha himself. These stories are not historical truths but psychological truths. Your daemons are within you and you are the one that needs to accommodate them skillfully. The story of the Buddha’s temptations is a story of the Buddha’s struggle with his own inmost thoughts, urges, daemons. He did not conquer them; he came into accord with them. Consider the analogy of an apartment building. Once you may have lived on the first floor, but in time you moved to an apartment on the fourth floor. Now, just because you have ascended to the fourth floor does not mean that you have demolished the three lower stories of the building. They are still there; they must be still there. You need your lower levels to support where you are now.
Even the third Mara form – Death – is not evil per se. If you perceive death as a bad thing, you will turn this inevitable fact of life into a demon. But when seen for what it is (just another door), death is neither good nor evil: it is an essential and necessary part of life. Life is constantly pouring towards death. When we fear it, when we think that death is a problem to be solved, a failure, a mistake, we empower a daemon who makes life miserable. This is not the skillful way to treat a daemon.
Daemons are energy: there is nothing inherently good or bad about anger, or fear or any emotion. There are times when anger is necessary; it provides the energy needed to help us correct some injustice. Fear is, at times, necessary to protect us or our families. But, at times, anger or fear can be unskillfully acted upon. Like a buddha, we do not try to stop being angry or fearful but rather we strive to be aware of anger or fear when it arises, so we can decide whether to leave this door closed or open it.
This is a radically different approach to our daemons, but it is exactly what we are practicing in our Yin Yoga poses: accommodation with what is rather than trying to fix, change or overcome our challenges. If we look at our daemons as part of ourself, as necessary pieces of what makes us human and unique, we can come into a more skillful relationship with them. We allow the demons within to be and sit with them until we can see clearly what is the skillful action to take. Then, despite our daemon, or maybe because of him, we act. And like the Buddha, that action may be to remain still.
— For further study see Bernie’s upcoming new book – From the Gita to the Grail: Exploring Yoga Stories & Western Myths – to be released by Blue River Press in January 2014. —
- — In the Hebrew bible, he is often referred to as Ha-Satan: the adversary in the sense of a prosecuting attorney (think of Hamilton Berger versus Perry Mason.) With this interpretation, we can see that Ha-Satan is simply doing his job on behalf of the law of the land, or in this case, God.
- — See Living With the Devil by Stephen Batchelor, although some texts list five kinds of Mara.
- — See Sukhavti, by Joseph Campbell, produced by The Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2005.
- — Joseph Campbell points out that the first three floors are the first three chakras: once you get up to the fourth floor, the level of the heart chakra, your spiritual journey begins, but you still need the lower chakras: See A Joseph Campbell Companion.
(Back to Newsletter #15)